Edwin Morgan, who has died aged 90, was the last of a group of great Scottish poets, spanning two generations, sometimes referred to as "the seven poets". His colleagues were Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith, Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown, Robert Garioch and Hugh MacDiarmid. The distinctive feature of this purely literary grouping (some individual members openly disliked others) was its astonishing variety. MacDiarmid is rightly cited as the sun around which the lesser planets revolved, and MacCaig commands a special affection on account of his wit and geniality, but Morgan was unrivalled in his formal invention, linguistic resourcefulness and – not the least of his qualities – his sense of fun. To read a book such as The Second Life (1968) was like going out to play. Here is Summer Haiku, for example:
This is Siesta of a Hungarian Snake:
s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz Zs zs Zs zs zs z
Morgan was born into a middle-class family in Hyndland, in Glasgow's west end. His family moved to nearby Rutherglen two years later, where he attended Rutherglen academy. Like many Glaswegians of the time, his father worked in shipping. When I interviewed Morgan in 2003 at the nursing home where he was then living, also in the west end, he spoke of the long walks he took with his father, on which "he used to tell me all about how steel was made and how ships were constructed. That industrial side of Glasgow was in my mind from a very early age."
As a youth, he was attracted to subjects such as astronomy, zoology and archaeology, but his parents intended their only child to follow them into the firm of steel merchants and shipbreakers, Arnott, Young and Co, where his father had started out as a clerk and his mother was the boss's daughter. He described his childhood, which was perhaps more study-bound than is thought to be normal, as "very much an unhappy one".
In contrast to the poetic congress babbling behind his spectacles and buck-toothed grin, Morgan in company could be reserved to the point of silence, especially among strangers. He had the look of being always slightly out of fashion. For 30 years, until his retirement in 1980, he taught at Glasgow University, eventually becoming titular professor of English in 1975. In addition to his own poetry, he translated from several languages, and in 1952 published a version of Beowulf.
He found his natural subject matter in the history and geography of Scotland, and in particular Glasgow. He was a skilled performer of his own work, much of which depends on complex verbal effects. Among Rutherglen academy's old boys was Stan Laurel, and it is nice to think that Morgan shared something of his comic sense of timing.
A public reading by Morgan might involve poems such as The Loch Ness Monster's Song, with its sensitive rendering of the voice of the world's loneliest beast; The Clone Poem, based on the conceit "when you've seen one you've seen them all seen them all seen one seen them all all all all"; or French Persian Cats Having a Ball – "chat / shah shah / chat / chat shah cha ha", reprised in rolling combinations.
He also produced poems of deep feeling, such as The Death of Marilyn Monroe, which goes forward in lumbering cadences like a funeral cortege led by a Scottish Allen Ginsberg: "And if she was not responsible, not wholly responsible, Los Angeles? / Los Angeles? Will it follow you around? Will the slow white / hearse of the child of America follow you around?"
Then there was the series of works expressing the inner life of Glasgow, in which cloth cap and fur coat make a happy couple, in which "Monsters of the year / go blank" before the vision of a holy trio of young people and a chihuahua (rather than a donkey) in the city centre at Christmas time. In addition, he wrote concrete poetry, computer poetry and an 80-part serial work, Sonnets from Scotland (1984), with titles ranging from De Quincey in Glasgow to Gangs.
Morgan enrolled as an undergraduate at Glasgow University in 1937 but his studies were interrupted by the second world war, in which he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in the Middle East. His first book, The Vision of Cathkin Braes (the Braes is a range of hills on the southern outskirts of Glasgow), was published in 1952 by the Glasgow firm MacLellan. The title poem is an extraordinary work of around 300 lines, in which the poet and "my honey" retire to the Braes and hide among "the trees and thickets, eerie and dim" to make love. One after another, iconic figures from Scottish history and legend appear to them, including John Knox, the poet William McGonagall, on the back of a bull, and Mary, Queen of Scots.
Morgan more than once expressed his lack of enthusiasm for "Larkin and his crew", and his preference for Scots, Welsh and American bards. For linguistic effervescence, in the early days, he looked to WS Graham and Dylan Thomas; for the licence to write about "very ordinary things in Glasgow", he followed the example of William Carlos Williams. And from Williams he moved on to the beat generation – an unexpected step at that time for a career academic in a conventional English department.
Morgan resembles Ginsberg in the desire to capture a visitation, sparked perhaps by something on television, or the smoke from a lover's cigarette. But there was something yet more urgent in the Howl of Ginsberg that spoke to Morgan. The "honey" with whom he slips into the bushes in the The Vision of Cathkin Braes, to exchange "tender kisses", was male. Love poetry is one of the principal elements in Morgan's work, but until his coming out in 1990, as a kind of 70th birthday present to himself, his readers were invited to assume that the object of desire was female.
His love poems were nevertheless written with the hope that they would be understood one day, and attentive readers even in the 1970s would have had little doubt about a poem such as Christmas Eve, which recounts a story in which a man on a bus puts his hand on the poet's knee. Outside, "cars all dark with parcels" stream home to families:
It was only fifteen minutes out of life
but I feel as if I was lifted by a
and thrown down on some desert rocks
of dangers as always far worse lost
For 16 years, Morgan had a regular partner, John Scott, the subject of several poems. He died in 1978. Morgan described him as "not a literary man at all. He worked as a storeman in factories, and so on." Many of Morgan's encounters are with working-class men; the man on the bus in Christmas Eve is an ex-soldier, tattooed, with a face "unshaven, hardman, a warning". A poem from his book Love and a Life (2003) has a reluctant suitor protesting his love for his wife and "ma weans".
In the 1930s, Morgan taught himself Russian, with the intention of reading the literature. He had a particular liking for the futurist poets, such as the linguistically acrobatic Velimir Khlebnikov. Morgan's Collected Poems, published by Carcanet in 1990, is matched by an almost equally hefty volume, Collected Translations (1996), in which, among much else, the reader will find the songs of Heinrich Heine rendered into broad Scots:
Yonder's a lanely fir-tree
On the Hielan moors sae bare.
It sleeps in the snaw and the cranreuch
Wi a cauld cauld plaid to wear.
Morgan was among the most prolific of modern poets, yet until his retirement from the university, his literary activity had to take place "in the interstices of life". Promotion was slow, the job was demanding, and there were times when he considered quitting and becoming a freelance writer, but he liked the steady living and being among the students. He declared himself in favour of poets having recognisable jobs and against the emergence of the university-subsidised poet.
Morgan was appointed OBE in 1982. In 1999, he was made Glasgow's first poet laureate and the following year he was awarded the Queen's gold medal for poetry. In 2004, he was named "Scots Makar", the national poet for Scotland. His collection Cathures (2002) contained poems mostly emerging from his laureateship and included a sequence inspired by the cancer which had lately been disclosed. His last collection of poetry, Dreams and Other Nightmares, was published earlier this year. As well as poems and translations, he published two collections of essays (one of which, Crossing the Border (1990), is devoted to Scottish literature), plays and Glaswegian versions of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (1992) and Racine's Phèdre (2000).
Morgan was always quick to help younger poets, by reading their work, providing inspirational texts, and even writing a foreword when a book was ready to go into print. My encounters with him were mainly as editor: first for the quarterly magazine the New Edinburgh Review, to which he contributed poems and reviews, and later for the Times Literary Supplement. The last request I made of him was for a review of a book of newly discovered poems by MacDiarmid, to which he at first agreed, but later he admitted he was too weak to continue.
The most vivid memory snapshot of him I possess comes from long before then: one Saturday night in Glasgow in the 70s, after the pubs had closed, I boarded a bus heading out west. The upper deck, as always, was a genial riot of drinking songs, Frank Sinatra tunes, Danny Boy and the rest. In the middle of it all, hands clasped on his lap, sat a silently smiling Edwin Morgan.
• Edwin George Morgan, poet, born 27 April 1920; died 19 August 2010
Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her Los Angeles apartment 49 years ago today, at the young age of 36. A posthumous book of her poetry and writings, Fragments, was published last year, as we mentioned. The Economist wrote at the time:
Monroe was very private with this work, revealing it to only a few friends and intimates. These personal fragments now lend a charming glimpse into her psyche, and also capture some of her pain. At times she shows a real talent for poetry and its rhythm, and uses the disquiet in herself to capture the humanity around her. Arthur Miller, her third and last husband, once said about her: "To have survived she would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was. Instead she was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes."
Vanity Fair also had a good piece about Monroe and Fragments. It excerpted a poem she wrote about Miller:
my love sleeps besides me—
in the faint light—I see his manly jaw
give way—and the mouth of his
with a softness softer
its sensitiveness trembling
his eyes must have look out
wonderously from the cave of the little
boy—when the things he did not understand—
but will he look like this when he is dead
oh unbearable fact inevitable
yet sooner would I rather his love die
In fact, many of her notes were set with line breaks, as if in verse. Vanity Fair wrote of her death:
For those who believe she died of an accidental overdose, mixing prescribed barbiturates with alcohol, the archive contains evidence of her optimism, her feeling that she has come to rely on herself and will solve her problems through work and her capable, businesslike plans for the future.
And for conspiracy theorists who have always suspected foul play, there is an intriguing note to the effect that Marilyn might have distrusted and even feared J.F.K.’s brother-in-law Peter Lawford, who was the last person to speak to her on the phone. In the handsome, green, engraved Italian diary, probably dating to around 1956, she had appended this fearful note to a short list of people she loved and trusted:
the feeling of violence I’ve had lately
about being afraid
of Peter he might
poison me, etc.
why—strange look in his eyes—strange
in fact now I think I know
why he’s been here so long
because I have a need to
be frighten[ed]—and nothing really
in my personal relationships
(and dealings) lately
have been frightening me—except
for him—I felt very uneasy at different
times with him—the real reason
I was afraid of him—is because I believe
him to be homosexual—not in the
way I love & respect and admire [Jack]
who I feel feels I have talent
and wouldn’t be jealous
of me because I wouldn’t
really want to
whereas Peter wants
to be a woman—and
would like to be me—I think
Take a moment, woah. And onward: the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan wrote a poem called "The Death of Marilyn Monroe," as did Sharon Olds. Of course, Frank O'Hara loved Monroe, and Wayne Koestenbaum considers her alongside Adonis in Hotel Theory. You can hear Morgan read his poem below:
The New Republic has looked at the biography of Arthur Miller, his relationship to the star, and how it affected his own writing (he didn't write a play for the first seven years of their marriage). Miller was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956:
No sooner was Miller done testifying than he went back to Roxbury, Connecticut, where he lived for much of his adult life, to marry Monroe. On the day of the wedding, June 29, the couple planned to give a press conference, hoping to sate the huge appetite for stories about what one columnist called “America’s foremost foremosts.” On the way home from picking up the marriage license, Miller and Monroe witnessed a car crash: a reporter from Paris Match, following their car, had run into a tree, and the bride and groom watched her die on the roadside. They then continued home, where the assembled reporters went ahead with the press conference. It was an omen of the life to come. As Bigsby puts it, “Miller was being ushered into a new moral universe.”
Then it was off to England, where Monroe was to star with Laurence Olivier in a light comedy called The Prince and the Showgirl. Here the private misery began, as Miller began to fathom Monroe’s bottomless insecurity and paranoia. Certain that the great Olivier held her in contempt, Monroe responded by sabotaging the picture--taking sleeping pills, showing up late, refusing to learn her lines. One scene required thirty takes, “which Olivier called ‘an historic amount.’ ” When Miller tried to point out, reasonably, that Olivier was not really out to get her, Monroe reacted as though her husband had joined the conspiracy against her. The only person she trusted, Miller discovered, was Paula Strasberg, her acting guru, who fed her delusions endlessly. On one occasion, Miller remembered, Strasberg told Marilyn: “You are the greatest woman of your time, the greatest human being of your time; of any time, you name it; you can’t think of anybody, I mean--no, not even Jesus--except you’re more popular.”
What we love is the evolution of Monroe's star identity—sure, she's an icon on a few levels, and her image is wrapped up in mystery (albeit of the magical and problematic sort)—but it's the interiority of her mind, suggested by her connection with poems (or books—have you noticed all the photographs of her reading?) that can also continue to extend and reshape her presence. Thinking of you, MM, on August 5!